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Stream or tune in Wednesdays, May 12 - June 2, 2021 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Mondays, May 17 - June 7 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2

Steven Johnson and David Olusoga

Credit: Courtesy of ©Nutopia

Above: Steven Johnson and David Olusoga

EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER is a new four-part series that examines the science and medical innovations that conquered some of the world’s deadliest diseases and doubled life expectancies for many across the globe.

Set in the context of today’s COVID-19 crisis, this series explores the lessons learned from previous global pandemics — including smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu and others — and reveals how scientists, doctors, self-experimenters and activists launched a public health revolution, saving millions of lives, fundamentally changing how we think about illness and ultimately paving the way for modern medicine.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Carr, Nutopia

Steven Johnson holding up mask.

Best-selling author Steven Johnson (“The Ghost Map,” HOW WE GOT TO NOW) and historian and broadcaster David Olusoga (CIVILIZATIONS, “Black and British: A Forgotten History”) combine expertise to guide viewers across 300 years of medical innovation, and go behind the scenes of modern medicine to meet the unsung heroes who are tackling COVID-19 and other public health threats.

Johnson and Olusoga shed light on scientific breakthroughs and reveal how collective efforts around the world can lead to extraordinary outcomes, including doubling the human lifespan in under a century.


Discover the little-known story of the innovations in science and medicine that doubled the human lifespan in less than a century, and celebrate the unsung heroes of public health who believed change was possible and acted on it.

While the series features many leading public health authorities and scientists on the front lines of the current pandemic, EXTRA LIFE examines the bigger picture and sparks a global conversation about how we’ve learned to save lives.

The series explores how the pioneering approaches and innovative medical triumphs of the past provided a blueprint for our future in the battle to live longer.

The series is particularly sensitive to the cultural blind spots that influenced our approach to health, tracing the origins of inoculation back to Africa, long before the discovery of vaccination in the west, and highlighting the often-overlooked inequalities in access to health.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Joe Taylor, Nutopia

OB Sisay, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change Country Head in The Gambia and Senior COVID-19 Adviser at the Institute, with David Olusoga in a scene from EXTRA LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER.

Fimmaker Quotes:

“Now more than ever, we need powerful storytelling that captures and explains the achievements in public health and medicine over the past few centuries,” said Johnson. “The fact that we have doubled life expectancy may well be the single most important development in modern history.”

"The revolution in medicine and public health that has taken place over the past three centuries is one of the greatest achievements of all time,” said Olusoga. “The series is a history of unsung heroes and forgotten pioneers whose incredible stories deserve to be better known."

Each episode will explore one aspect of public health that has played a central role in our battle to live longer.


Episode 1: “Vaccines” airs Wednesday, May 12 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2 - This episode explores the history and use of vaccination, from early practices in Africa introduced to America during the slave trade and Thomas Jefferson's clinical trials, to the first anti-vax protests in the 19th century and COVID-19 today.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Vanessa Carr, Nutopia

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Episode 2: “Medical Drugs” airs Wednesday, May 19 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Monday, May 24 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2 - This episode focuses on the more recent medical inventions that combat illness directly, particularly antibiotics, and the development of antiviral drugs for HIV. Knowledge of how to produce safe, effective drugs and distribute them quickly around the globe now underpins work to find treatments for COVID-19.

The Impact of COVID-19 On Different Ethnicities In London

Dr. Vanessa Apea researched the impact of COVID-19 on different ethnicities in London. She found that Black and Asian ethnicities had a greater risk of death despite being a younger and fitter population due to environmental, rather than biological, factors.

Episode 3: “Data “ airs Wednesday, May 26 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Monday, May 31 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2 - This episode looks at how the emergence of fact-based research, data mapping and analysis has improved public health. The practice evolved out of the 19th century science of epidemiology and cholera mortality reports in the 1840s, where the now ubiquitous “curve” of an epidemic was first documented.

How Gertrude Elion Became a Pioneer of Modern Medicine

Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings were a drug-making dream team. They built highly efficient, targeted synthetic drugs to perform specific tasks. Elion and her team built a new antiviral drug in the 1970s to treat herpes, ushering in a new age of medicine and paving the way for designer drugs that could treat a huge range of illnesses.

Episode 4: “Behavior” airs Wednesday, June 2 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Monday, June 7 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2 - This episode examines the importance of public engagement during a health crisis, from the discovery that the simple act of handwashing could save lives in a 19th century Viennese maternity hospital, to facemasks and lockdowns used to combat the Spanish flu 100 years ago, along with what we are experiencing today.

Florence Nightingale Used Creativity to Alter Hygiene Habits

Florence Nightingale hypothesizes that poor hygiene causes disease, and the data confirms it. In an ingenious move, she creates a colorful rose diagram to catch the attention of the general public so that they pay heed to her findings. Her diagram was fundamental in persuading people to change their hygiene habits.

Watch On Your Schedule:

The series will stream simultaneously with broadcast and be available on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.


A production of Nutopia for PBS. The series is executive produced by Jane Root, Nicola Moody, Fiona Caldwell and Steven Johnson, and directed by Duncan Singh, Helen Sage, Tristan Quinn, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg. Bill Gardner is the Executive in Charge for PBS.

Funding is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the New Venture Fund and PBS.


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